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Make IT infrastructure documentation a regular task

Even though documenting IT processes might not be at the top of an admin's to-do list, they should not let it fall by the wayside. Learn documentation best practices here.

Documentation does not have to be a time-consuming chore if the entire IT staff gets involved. And the time put in can be well worth the effort.

Proper IT infrastructure documentation increases efficiency and accuracy during troubleshooting, as everyone understands which server does what. Knowing where to find a certain scheduled task is easy if you have somewhere to look it up. Otherwise, admins have to jump from server to server or run a search to find the information they need.

A reference list of vendors or applications, who owns them, and who to call for help can benefit everyone. If your help desk gets calls about a broken business app, they need to know who to talk to. If your resident expert is away, then knowing the vendor details gives your staff a direct path to resolution rather than leaving them desperately making calls to different staffers looking for advice.

What should I document?

IT infrastructure documentation applies at all stages of the IT lifecycle. When the organization adds a new product, it helps to record its settings: server names, IP addresses and other information that makes other tasks easier, such as upgrades or maintenance. If a contractor does the setup work, get the build documentation.

Don't rely on a third party to keep records and maintain them -- you may move to a different vendor or the technician who did your work might move on, leaving you with little or no information about the architecture and settings.

Business-critical information stored only in people's brains is a dilemma for any company.

Change management is another type of IT infrastructure documentation. It helps to know if something changed and why, as well as to have a back out plan that can become part of the build documentation. These updates keep the IT staff on the same page. It's helpful for operations to have this history so that, when a ticket comes in, they have some background to work from if the end-user experience is different from what's expected.

Staff turnover creates a big risk to continuity if documentation is lacking. Business-critical information stored only in people's brains is a dilemma for any company. If someone quits, gets fired or is on extended leave, you're left with the same problem -- systems that nobody knows anything about.

How do I find time to document?

Depending on your job, there are a few simple approaches to tackle the documentation process. Dedicate time to sit down and write some notes about important resources. Print off lists of servers and record what they do. List all known applications and who owns them. Put together templates that can be filled in for each item, with different team members filling in unknown sections.

If dedicating time isn't feasible, then document as you go. With any work you do, record the points of interest. If systems come with documentation, then don't rewrite what's already there.

Documentation options for administrators

SharePoint Online offers a lot of options to host documents. You can create a wiki or develop multiple sites. You can also use a proper document management system with API support for third-party software. SharePoint on-premises works, but it comes with some negatives when managing an on-premises product where you need to look after all of its layers, including indexing for search.

Microsoft Teams is free for up to 300 users and has most of the features you'd want, including file storage.

Another choice that is free that you can host yourself is MediaWiki. It's the same platform that runs Wikipedia. It's a good choice for text documentation, but it lags behind other choices for images and documents. 

Give objects descriptive names. Use comment fields to record extra information or link to online documentation that provides greater detail. Find scripts to export settings into a readable report. If you just completed a setup, show someone else how you did it and get them to take notes. There are lots of quick wins that can be made by taking a little extra time to record what you've done.

A less formal method of documentation is to use some kind of centralized communication service, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. Writing out information in one of these tools gives the team a place where they can find and search documentation. A public chat between engineers can be referenced later to see what decision was reached and why. However, this method doesn't beat proper IT infrastructure documentation unless you start using these platforms as part of a self-documenting workflow.

How do I get others to document?

Using a personal OneNote notebook doesn't help anyone except yourself. Do you want to be the person who gets called to fix something while you're on vacation? Work out where to host your IT infrastructure documentation, create a structure that makes sense, put some content in there, and invite others to read and contribute.

Solicit ideas from your staff on what they'd like to see documented to make their jobs easier, then get the right people involved to make it happen. When something breaks, demonstrate how having documentation could have helped. Make sure everyone agrees on the documentation methods and communicate those practices to all the staffers involved. Then, set up a wiki and start creating content. 

Everyone in IT should take the time needed to create IT infrastructure documentation. Get your team on board, secure the time and money required, and start recording the things you put in place for the benefit of your colleagues and company.

This was last published in October 2018

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